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‘The Archies’ review: The young and the zestless

Zoya Akhtar's musical, an adaptation of Archie comics set in India in the 1960s, is too bland to make much of an impression

'The Archies'
'The Archies'

When Betty realizes it’s Veronica’s father who’s putting her dad out of business, she confronts her friend. They have a loud argument in Pop Tate’s diner, after which Betty storms out, leaving Veronica in tears. These are the next few lines, contributed by members of the Archies gang:

“What just happened?”

“I don’t know.”

“Why is she behaving like this?”

“Upset hai. And why wouldn’t she be? Har cheez profit ke baare mein nahi ho sakti. For some people there’s more to life.”

“Get stuffed, Jughead. Mere father ek businessman hain and I’m not going to feel guilty about that.”

“And I’m not going to be apologetic for my ambition!”

“Easy guys, relax, it’s all okay.”

The Archies, directed by Zoya Akhtar and co-written with Reema Kagti and Ayesha DeVitre Dhillon, isn’t always this awkward. Still, this is a representative exchange: flat, frictionless, code-switching because it has to. It’s easy to see why Netflix wanted Akhtar: besides her other qualities, she’s one of the few Indian directors who writes fun English dialogue (“You’re kissing them all…in French” is one of the better lines here). But the challenge of taking these archetypal American characters and making them interesting in an Indian context seems to defeat her. 

Where the increasingly batshit Riverdale pushed the boundaries of what an Archies narrative could be, Akhtar’s film plays it incredibly safe. The worst thing you could say about Archie (Agastya Nanda) is that he kind of strings along painfully nice Betty (Khushi Kapoor) and rich brat diva Veronica (Suhana Khan), both of whom are madly in love with him. Ethel (Dot.) and Dilton (Yuvraj Menda) are both sweethearts; Jughead (Mihir Ahuja) is a goof with a good heart. Even Reggie (Vedang Raina) is a decent kid with a James Dean pout. 

The stakes could not be lower. There’s the usual situationship à trois with Archie, Betty and Veronica. Reggie is vaguely in love with Veronica, and Dilton ardently with Reggie. Archie may go abroad to study; Ethel wants to be a better-paid hairdresser than she currently is. All this is tied together by the (barely) evil plan of businessman Hiram Lodge (Alyy Khan), Veronica’s father, to build a hotel in the gang’s beloved Green Park. Soon, they're agitating and whipping up support across town. It is, needless to say, a bloodless revolution. 

Akhtar creates her own Riverdale, a fictional Darjeeling-like town in north India. It’s set in 1964, in the Anglo-Indian community—the only solution that allows the makers to retain the canonic characters’ names with some plausibility. It does feel odd, though, that this Riverdale is seemingly populated only by Anglo-Indians, to the extent that Vinay Pathak’s corrupt councilman is the only resident who gives the impression they’d rather be speaking in Hindi. The heightened unreality of the setting runs counter to the deliberate situation of the story in post-independence India. There’s a lot of talk of duty towards India as a growing nation (“This is our mulk,” Archie’s father says, explaining why he stayed behind). A few insertions of quotidian India might have helped, not harmed, the film. And while Jean Luc-Godard is namechecked and ‘Wooly Bully’ plays on the stereo, the writers only seem interested in the ‘60s as a backdrop for cosplay and flash mobs.

Akhtar’s abiding interest in, and affection for, choreography is a bright spot. The song sequences, done in the style of an American musical rather than a Bollywood one, are the most inventive bits in the film. ‘Jab Tum Na Thee’ starts with Archie and Veronica singing across a table to each other and soon the whole restaurant is dancing. ‘Dhishoom Dhishoom’ has the performers on roller skates. ‘Va Va Voom’ is all ecstatic swirling camera movements. If only the music had more ambition: ‘Sunoh’ cribs from ‘Top of the World’, ‘Everything is Politics’ takes its beat from ‘That Thing You Do’, ‘Va Va Voom’ is a combination of ‘La Bamba’ and ‘Twist and Shout’. 

If you grew up in ‘90s and 2000s, you coud do a decent spot-that-actor/VJ/model drinking game with this cast… Alyy Khan, Luke Kenny, Koel Purie, Kamal Sidhu, Delnaaz Irani. Suhaas Ahuja is wonderful as Archie’s supportive father, quietly patriotic by example but not foisting that burden on his son. The young leads aren’t bad; there’s really not much you can do with this material. After the fire and crackle of Gully Boy, it’s disappointing to see Akhtar settle for chirpy blandness. “To make art, you have to go in, not out,” Fred Andrews tells his son. The Archies stays outside.  

‘The Archies’ is on Netflix.

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